British Columbia Post-Secondary Education Minister Selina Robinson is stepping down amid an outcry over her remarks that modern Israel was founded on “a crappy piece of land.”
Premier David Eby says Robinson’s “belittling” remarks were incompatible with her remaining in cabinet, although she will stay in the NDP caucus.
“The depth of the work that Minister Robinson needs to do, in order to address the harms that she’s caused, is significant,” Eby told an impromptu news conference in Vancouver on Monday.
Eby had faced mounting calls for the removal of Robinson since the remarks last week that infuriated pro-Palestinian groups and other critics, who say her comments perpetuate harmful colonial narratives that ignore the history of Palestinian people in the region.
The premier said that he and Robinson agreed on her decision to quit her position, which came after two apologies from her, as well as a commitment that she would undertake anti-Islamophobia training.
“When you hurt somebody, you need to reach out to them and try to figure out what the best way is to reduce the harm and address the hurt that has been caused,” said Eby.
He said he and Robinson had been asking people “how to make things better,” and the decision Robinson had to go came after a “cumulative” process.
Robinson, who is one of the most prominent Jewish politicians in B.C., said in a statement she agreed her departure was for the best.
“This decision does not excuse my harmful comments, nor does it absolve me of the work I am committed to doing,” she said.
“While I had previously decided not to run again in the next election I remain committed to my constituents for the remainder of my term.”
Community leaders breathe ‘sigh of relief’
Robinson made the original contentious remarks on Jan. 30 during a panel discussion with other Jewish politicians hosted by B’nai Brith Canada, in which she lamented a lack of knowledge by younger people about the foundation of modern Israel.
“They don’t understand it was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it. There were several hundred thousand people but other than that it didn’t produce an economy,” she said.
The remarks triggered a backlash from pro-Palestinian groups as well as from Robinson’s own party. Critics have said remarks like Robinson’s dismiss people who lived in British-administered Palestine for tens of thousands of years before the creation of Israel in 1948.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called them “offensive,” while the National Council of Canadian Muslims called them “horrendous.”
On Friday, Robinson apologized on X for the comments, saying they were “disrespectful.” She said she had been referring to the land having limited natural resources.
The MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville issued a more detailed apology Monday morning in a statement sent to media outlets. It said she understood she had broken the trust of many people, and is committed to “taking part in anti-Islamophobia training to more deeply understand the concerns that have been expressed to me.”
Representatives from more than a dozen B.C. mosques and Islamic associations wrote to Eby over the weekend calling for Robinson’s removal and banning NDP MLAs and candidates in the October provincial election from their sacred spaces until action was taken against her.
Bilal Cheema, a volunteer spokesman for the group, said Robinson’s exit prompted a “sigh of relief.”
Cheema said Robinson was welcome to be a part of important conversations with the community.
“Now she doesn’t have power over us being a cabinet minister. If she’s willing to engage, our doors are always going to be open,” he said.
“We welcome an opportunity to help her beat back her thinking, her beliefs, or understanding, on the difficult history of that region, or of how we are going to build and continue to sustain this mosaic that we’ve built here in British Columbia.”
On Monday, groups protested outside the provincial NDP caucus retreat in Surrey, B.C., with organizers delivering the signatures of more than 11,000 people asking for Robinson’s resignation.
‘A very, very shocking thing to see’
But Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, said the departure of Robinson was “shocking.”
“I think at a time when the intimidation of Jewish students on campus is as high as it’s ever been, to see a Jewish minister of advanced education stepping down sends really a chill down my spine,” he said.
“It’s obviously a very, very shocking thing to see, especially after Minister Robinson was apologetic and also came up with a plan for reconciliation.”
Hamish Telford, associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, said Eby is facing political harm from the Robinson scandal, with his government’s throne speech and annual budget coming up later this month.
“Obviously, the government wants to get back on message as quickly as possible,” he said Monday morning, prior to the news conference.